Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Origins of Barsoom

Other Stuff


The first draft of John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood came in at almost 500 pages and the final version is 340 pages so there is some  “cutting room floor” material which I’d like to share. One of the areas where I had to make cuts was in the “backstory” — originally I spent 100 pages getting to the entry of Andrew Stanton and Disney into the story; now that happens about on page 50. One of the pieces that got lost was the following introduction to Edgar Rice Burroughs and exploration of the influences which led to hi creation of Barsoom.  This didn’t all get completely lost, but it was shortened and the extended discussion of Percival Lowell and Helena Blavatsky was lost.  

We win, when we are defeated.  EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS

At 35,  Edgar Rice Burroughs cut an impressive figure. Six feet tall in an era when that was a good five inches above the norm, he had blacksmith forearms, massive hands, and an erect, athletic posture. An accomplished horseman, in his youth he had been capable of trick-riding that would make a Cossack stand up and take notice. He had mined gold in Idaho and Oregon, and chased Apaches in Arizona.  His only sign of aging was that his  hair was beginning to thin, but there was no slouch in him; no hint that life had beaten him as close to defeat as he would later reveal it had.

Yet he was a desperate man, and defeat was at his doorstep.   He would later calculate that before his circumstances changed for the better, he would slog through 18 jobs and business schemes without success.  In the summer of 1911, he was only able to keep his family of four fed and clothed through regular visits to a nearby pawnshop and  the occasional largesse of his wife’s  wealthy and generous family.  Those wells were drying up, and Burroughs needed a solution.

There can be no doubt that Burroughs detested poverty even as he lived it — so much so that once, in 1908,  he railed against bitterly against it in a poem:



Accursed and cursing

Thou Drab of Sin and Vice and Misery;

Thou spur to Fortune;

From thy shrunk womb a Lincoln springs

Engulfest though a thousand who might have Lincolns been

Seducer, thou, of Health and Happiness and Love

Murderess of countless children, wan and pinched

Honor in thee? Forfend us God!

Who lise with thee reeks of thy filth

The butt of Ridicule the jest of Fate

Loathing and loathed to a dishonored grave.

More typical of Burroughs response to his financial circumstances was the kind of wry humor that would infuse all of his non-fiction writing, and much of his fiction in later years.  When Christmas of 1910 rolled around and he and Emma had no money for Christmas Cards, he set about to create his own, using original drawings and verse. One, to Frank Coleman Burroughs, read:

Please accept this little token

It would be more were I not broken


In the drawing on the card, one man is presenting the other with a document containing the words: “Lease to 25th floor of any 24 floor bldg.”

While Burroughs himself would speak of his failures, there was a dimension to his “failures” that demonstrated at least the potential for success. No one could accuse Burroughs of not dreaming big, nor could he be accused of not being willing to risk a great deal in pursuit of his dream of the moment. His frequent near insolvency was not the result of simply not being able to land a job; rather it had more to do with his inability or unwillingness to remain indefinitely in a stable, yet unchallenging and ultimately boring job.  Why stick it out with a stable position at, say, the burgeoning mail-order giant Sears and Roebuck when the prospect of launching your own mail-order venture beckoned?    It was a pattern that repeated itself again and again; stable job with limited prospects dumped for a grand entrepreneurial adventure that failed to pan out, followed by a retrenchment at yet another stable but uninspiring job.  Burroughs was never destined to be one of those whose life is spent wondering what might have been.

By 1911 Burroughs had once again quit a stable job to rush headlong into an entrepreneurial “opportunity” — this one, pencil sharpeners.  He had acquired an agency and, using borrowed office space, had recruited sales agents who daily went out with the contraptions and endeavored to sell them.  He had read Theodore Roosevelt’s words given at the Sorbonne in April, 1910, and, it seemed,  he was determined to live them:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Such was the moment that Edgar Rice Burroughs had arrived at when, in the July of 1911, while his pencil sharpener sub-agents were out pounding the pavements with their products and Burroughs was alone in the borrowed office, he began to surreptitiously pen the outrageously imaginative story that he tentatively entitled: “Dejah Thoris, Martian Princess”.

The ubiquitous pulps were Burroughs’ target — the 10 cent all-fiction publications frequently featured new or unknown writers, and their stories followed patterns that Burroughs found easy to discern and, he theorized, would be easy enough to match or even out-do.   The plethora of magazines, and the stories they contained, provided ample fodder for Burroughs as he imagined a story he might create that would meet the editorial guidelines of the target publications.  Popular stories that appeared in the year prior to the time Burroughs started writing his unique story included The Cave of the Glittering Lamps, which ran from October 1910 through January 1911 in All Story Magazine, a five part novel written by a twenty seven year old, Ludwid Lewisohn, a story that postulated a subterranean city carved out of a Persian mountain.  From September 1910 through January 1911, All Story ran a serialized novel entitled The Monkey Man by William Tillinghast Eldridge–a crudely fashioned story of a powerful apelike man who swung through trees and terrorized a couple who had been cast away onto a tropical island, and which may well have had more to do with Burroughs’ second published story, Tarzan of the Apes, than Kipling’s Jungle Book which has frequently been cited as likely inspiration.

But while Burroughs plotted his assault on the pulps by reading and extracting from the fiction the editorial guidelines of the publications, he also read and absorbed other influences that would come together in the story he would choose to write.

One such influence was Percival Lowell, the scientist who popularized the notion that the “canals” of mars, clearly visible through telescopes from earth, were the work of intelligent beings. Lowell wrote his book based on observations made during Mars’ close approaches to earth in 1892 and 1894, and in his conclusion sums up a description of the likely inhabitants of Mars:

“We may, perhaps, in conclusion, consider for a moment how different in its details existence on Mars must be from existence on the Earth. If we were transported to Mars, we should be pleasingly surprised to find all our manual labor suddenly lightened threefold. …. Let us see how. As we all know, a large man is more unwieldy than a small one. An elephant refuses to hop like a flea; not because he considers the act undignified, but simply because he cannot bring it about. If we could, we should all jump straight across the street, instead of painfully paddling through the mud. Our inability to do so depends upon the size of the Earth, not upon what it at first seems to depend, on the size of the street…..

Mars being thus old himself, we know that evolution on his surface must be similarly advanced. This only informs us of its condition relative to the planet’s capabilities. Of its actual state our data are not definite enough to furnish much deduction. But from the fact that our own development has been comparatively a recent thing, and that a long time would be needed to bring even Mars to his present geological condition, we may judge any life he may support to be not only relatively, but really older than our own.

Quite possibly, such Martian folk are possessed of inventions of which we have not dreamed, and with them electrophones and kinetoscopes are things of a bygone past, preserved with veneration in museums as relics of the clumsy contrivances of the simple childhood of the race. Certainly what we see hints at the existence of beings who are in advance of, not behind us, in the journey of life.

To talk of Martian beings is not to mean Martian men. Just as the probabilities point to the one, so do they point away from the other. Even on this Earth man is of the nature of an accident. He is the survival of by no means the highest physical organism. He is not even a high form of mammal. Mind has been his making. For aught we can see, some lizard or batrachian might just as well have popped into his place early in the race, and been now the dominant creature of this Earth. Under different physical conditions, he would have been certain to do so. Amid the surroundings that exist on Mars, surroundings so different from our own, we may be practically sure other organisms have been evolved of which we have no cognizance. What manner of beings they may be we lack the data even to conceive.”

There are also strong, albeit disputed, indications that Burroughs had at least been exposed to the writings of the theosophists, particular Helena Blavatsky, whose various postulations regarding lost races and cultures including Atlantis and Lemuria included a variety of features that would match a great deal of what Burroughs would offer when he conjured Barsoom.  Fritz Leiber wrote of this in his 1959 treatise “Burroughs and the Sword of Theosophy”, as did L. Sprague de Camp, who summed it up the likely influences on Burroughs thusly:

Another root of Barsoom lies in Theosophy, a religious-magical cult founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-91). … In 1888 Blavatsky published her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, wherein… we are told that man has evolved through seven Root Races… The Third Root Race were the gigantic, apelike, hermaphroditic, egg-laying Lemurians, with four arms and eyes in the backs of their heads….The Fourth Root Race was the human Atlantean; we are the Fifth, and the Sixth and Seventh are on the way.

After Blavatsky died, her successors expanded on her account of lost continents and prehistoric races…. the Toltecs, a sub-race of the Atlanteans, were red-skinned and… flew aircraft propelled by vril…. When vril came to Burroughs’ attention, he transformed it into the Eighth Barsoomian Ray. Life on Barsoom, with its four-armed giants, its red-skinned heroes and heroines, and its boatlike aircraft resembles nothing so much as life in the Theosophists’ Atlantis and Lemuria.  (http://www.erbzine.com/mag11/1107.html)

Neither Leiber nor de Camp postulates that Burroughs actually believed what Blavatsky was peddling; only that the correlations are too great to be mere coincidence, suggesting that Burroughs found in them a certain attractive mythic force which he harnessed to his “pure entertainment” purposes.

Whatever the influences, it came to be that Edgar Rice Burroughs, age 35, having contemplated the nature of “savages” and found them to be the victims of colonization, not the beneficiaries of it; having been exposed to the imaginative works of H.R. Haggard, H.G. Wells,  Jules Verne, and Edward Lester; having read the pulps of the day; and having had some likely exposure to both the scientific writings of Percival Lowell and the theosophical theories of Helena Blavatsky–and having been an 18 time loser in business, with inadequate income to provide for his family and no more watches or jewely to pawn–took pen to paper in the late summer of 1911 and began, surreptitiously and not telling anyone of his folly, to create the world, the story, and the characters that would inspire 100 years of writers, film-makers, and scientists.


  • Wow! That segment does a good job establishing his approach to life, his condition at the time he started to write, his influences, and offers several compelling clues about what might have inspired his imagination.

    It seems that there was, in general, a lot more speculation going on in the general public a hundred years ago, before all the corners of the Earth had been explored, and when it was believed that ancient civilizations on Mars were a possibility. Burroughs took that enthusiasm of his time in history, wrapped it up along with the last vestiges of the wonderment of the frontier, and put them into stories of exceptional imagination and adventure. He distilled something that has since been lost, unwittingly preserving it for future generations.

    When we read Burroughs, we return to the wild possibilities of an earlier era. His books take us to places that many people of his day hoped were real, places we now find alluringly preferable to the realities which have since been discovered. Barsoom works because we prefer it to the real Mars. We want to tell science to take a hike, and then go back in time and discover that Mars is Barsoom.

    That is the kind of appeal all the great fantasy worlds achieve – there are things about them that we prefer to reality. Pandora, the world of Avatar, is a return to Eden. Middle-earth is the idyllic existence of the Shire, with the ever-present opportunity for great adventures and crucial roles in the battle between good and evil. Barsoom is a dreamscape of exotic discovery and heroic opportunity.

    If those fantasy worlds are more than mere escape, they also set us back on our feet in better condition than ever to take the fight to our own Smaugs and Saurons and Than Kosises and Matai Shangs.

    That excision from the book makes me wish there was a “director’s cut” for “John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood”! Can’t wait to see what made it into the final draft.

  • Very interesting, Michael! It does seem he borrowed and improved upon many ideas to get them to work in his stories. I had recognized some before but the others mentioned make sense as inspirational ideas, too. I didn’t know about some of Madame Blavatsky’s wilder notions because when you see her name today in articles it’s more about the spiritualist side she promoted. I’m glad he polished them up for Barsoom!

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